Anatomy of an Ad: How Channel 4 told the story of the humans behind the Superhumans

paralympics Superhuman

It doesn’t take an athlete to be a ‘superhuman’. A mother with no arms bringing up her child, a woman flying a plane with her feet, a handless drummer... anyone with a disability, whether they are going about their daily life, doing something extraordinary or an elite athlete, is a ‘superhuman’.

That’s the thinking behind Channel 4’s second Paralympics spot which aims to broaden the definition of what it takes to be ‘superhuman’.

When Channel 4 won the UK broadcast rights for the London 2012 Paralympic Games following a competitive pitch, it marked the first time a not-for-profit company had bid for the Games. And, as a public service broadcaster, it had a remit set by parliament to champion diversity and alternative points of view meaning the broadcast rights came with a number of commitments to increase public engagement and involvement in Paralympic sport.

Tasked with delivering the strongest pre-Games broadcast coverage and marketing support the Paralympics had ever received on UK television, Channel 4 promoted its coverage by creating its biggest ever marketing campaign, ‘Meet the Superhumans’.

The ad took learnings from a documentary, ‘Inside Incredible Athletes’, the broadcaster had aired in 2010, as well as the two-year marketing campaign ‘Freaks of Nature’ which launched the same year with the intentions of changing perceptions of disability in sport. This set the tone of its Paralympic coverage, and so Superhumans was born.

‘Meet the Superhumans’ explored the backstories of a number of GB Paralympians and acted as a pivotal moment in the disability conversation – a break with convention that commanded viewers to forget everything they thought they knew about strength and humans.

And as Channel 4 aims to “take another step forward” in changing the conversation around disability, its new effort for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, ‘We’re The Superhumans’, works to widen the definition of what ‘superhuman’ is by featuring Paralympic athletes alongside everyday people with disabilities going about their daily lives, or doing something amazing like flying a plane with their feet.

“There’s such a poor representation of disability on screen and this was a chance to change that,” says Alice Tonge, creative director of the broadcaster’s in-house agency 4creative which concieved the campaign idea and strategy.

Channel 4 was well aware that expectations were high after the success of its first iteration, so decided early on in the process of creating the new campaign “not to try to be better but to try to be different”, chief marketing and communications officer Dan Brooke tells The Drum.

The glamorous and celebratory tone of the 2016 ad could not be further from its predecessor. The idea was to get a bigger and better representation of disability on screen in a way that championed the everyday as well as the athlete, and align the tone of the ad with people’s perceptions of Brazil; warm, colourful, energetic.

The ad’s soundtrack was an integral part of this. 4creative had tasked music agency Leland Music to find an edgy, punchy track similar to its first hit with Public Enemy. Instead, founder Abi Leland pitched upbeat swing jazz track ‘Yes I Can’ by Sammy Davis Jr, gathered a band of disabled musicians in Abbey Road studios, and the tone of the ad was set.

Casting the spot was an “epic undertaking”, Brooke says; a collaborative effort from 4creative, the ad’s director Dougal Wilson, external researcher Rose Waite and Channel 4’s partnered charities.

Of the 100+ people who feature most prominently, 17 are musicians, there are 39 Paralympians and 53 non-athletes. And in keeping with the inclusive feel, it features a mix of people from around the world – 78 from Britain and others from Australia, America, Brazil, Canada, Haiti, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain.

While the athletes were sourced through Channel 4’s relationship with the British Paralympic Association, many of the non-athletes were cast through working with various charities, the main four being Scope, Disability Rights, RNIB and Action on Hearing Loss.

Finding a lead singer who could sing swing jazz in a wheelchair with high mobility and was able to travel was a huge feat, says Shananne Lane, executive producer at Channel 4. Tony Dee, who was born with spina bifida, was found on YouTube after his wife uploaded a video of him singing. Blink Productions’ Wilson flew out to meet Dee at his home in the the suburbs of Brisbane and filmed him singing the track ‘Yes I Can’ on his iPhone. As someone who had never previously sung professionally, he was an immediate hit at Channel 4.

All the music in the ad is performed entirely by disabled musicians, bringing a new set of challenges, says Lane. One of the musicians, Gemma Lunt, fell ill before being able to record the string music, so Channel 4 “waited for a window when she would be able to do it”. Fortunately, one week before launch, that window emerged.

In 2012, the broadcaster commissioned research into audience attitudes towards disabled people on-screen to help inform its Paralympic coverage and marketing, the learnings of which helped inform Superhumans 2.0. To ensure authenticity and that the new ad was not promoting unrealistic or distorted perceptions of disability, the team met with all of its partnered charities before filming commenced.

It took roughly a year for the ad to go from early strategy conversations to creative development to shooting. It was created by the same in-house creative team from the original ‘Superhumans’ campaign, with input from Channel 4’s marketing and editorial, while Moving Picture Company (MPC) was tasked with post-production – no easy task given all the filming took place in empty stadiums. All crowd scenes in the ad are done via 3D post-production.

The biggest challenge outlined by producer Lane was that Channel 4 only had budget for 12 main shoot days, which meant getting all the cast from around the world and elite athletes to London, where most of the filming took place over those 12 days. As a consequence, the broadcaster needed to be economical with filming, shooting 60 scenes and 140 shots.

Despite smashing viewing records online, Channel 4 is pragmatic and does not expect the Paralympics in Rio to attract the kind of numbers that tuned into London 2012 where its live broadcast of the opening ceremony was seen by 11.8 million TV viewers – the broadcaster’s largest audience in 10 years. Its marketing campaign helped London 2012 Paralympics become the first of its kind to sell out. Worldwide, it was watched by approximately one billion more people than Beijing’s 2008 Paralympic Games. And for the first time, Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage beat the BBC Olympics to the TV Bafta for best sport and live event.

Yet success in Channel 4’s eyes isn’t just about getting people to watch the Paralympics. It is about a whole shift in attitude, trying to change global perceptions of disability. As part of its ‘Year of Disability’ commitment to increase both on and off-screen representation of disabled people, the broadcaster’s line-up will feature the largest number of disabled presenters seen together on UK television. Almost two-thirds of the team will consist of disabled presenters such as Breaking Bad actor RJ Mitte, broadcaster Sophie Morgan and former marine commando JJ Chalmers.

All in, the ad “is about as Channel 4 as you can get,” as Tonge puts it.

“It’s C4 distilled into three minutes; a platform for new talent, alternative voices and creative risk.” she says.

“The campaign challenges you to forget what you think you know about disability. And it’s a huge celebration of ability beyond disability. Not in a cheesy way, but a real, visceral, beautiful, challenging, truthful way. And that’s exactly what we aimed for.”

This article was first published in the 17 August issue of The Drum.

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